Chile’s president is a woman — and she just scored a major policy victory for women

Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. Yet it also leads the world in electing female presidents — including Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Last week, Chile’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a reproductive rights bill sponsored by Bachelet and passed by the congress. The new law will legalize abortions when the mother is at risk, when the fetus is unviable or when the pregnancy resulted from rape. Chile previously banned abortion in all instances.

Do female presidents tend to pursue pro-women legislation? The link between presidents’ gender and pro-women legislation is complicated. Here’s why:

1) Did Bachelet try to legalize abortion because she is a woman?

No, being a woman leader is not enough. Bachelet is one of the few female leaders in the world who has aggressively deployed her constitutional powers to pursue gender equality. About a quarter of countries today — including economic powerhouses like Germany, Brazil and the United Kingdom — have had at least one female president or prime minister, and yet few of these leaders pursued a “women-specific” agenda.

Bachelet ended her 2006-2010 presidential term with record-high approval ratings and several policy wins for women. Despite her landslide 2013 reelection, Bachelet had seen low approval ratings, widespread social protests and relatively few pro-women achievements in her current term.

2) Did Chile’s new law come about because the president is a feminist?

We doubt it. The conventional wisdom might suggest that some female leaders push for pro-women reforms because of their feminism. We think that this “feminist” explanation is logically circular: People often claim Bachelet is feminist because she pursued pro-women change.

New research suggests that networks and constituencies better explain why female presidents are more likely than male presidents to try to advance pro-women policies. Analyzing these factors shows why a president’s sex sometimes, but not always, matters.

3) Why are networks important?

Presidents often appoint people they personally know to their cabinets and other influential policymaking posts. So leaders rely on their networks to pursue their legislative agenda.

Reyes-Housholder argues that female presidential candidates, especially from left-leaning parties, are more likely to network with feminists. Prior relationships with these individuals matter because feminists have the political and technical expertise required for pro-women policymaking. These ties may make some female presidents more likely than male presidents to draft and propose these kinds of bills. But, again, not all female presidents do.

Bachelet had personal relationships with many feminists who played influential roles in her campaigns. She then ended up naming many of these feminists to her Cabinet, particularly to the Health Ministry, a key player in reproductive rights legislation. She therefore had greater access to information on the kinds of women-friendly reforms she pursued. So networks are key to understanding a possible link between a president’s sex and pro-women policymaking.

4) Why do constituencies matter?

Presidents want to please core constituencies because these groups help keep approval ratings up.

Reyes-Housholder further argues that female presidents are more likely to mobilize a constituency of women by promising women-friendly change. They also are more likely to do so by uniting women voters around their identities as women, (future) mothers or potential victims of sexism. If successful, these presidents will have strong incentives to pursue policies that cater to these supporters.

Bachelet consistently perceived women — especially low-income (potential) mothers — as a loyal core group of voters. Her 2005 election ended a long-standing gender gap: For the first time since women won the right to vote in Chile, the majority of women supported a left-of-center candidate. Many of her pro-women bills sought to deliver material benefits and funds to these specific subgroups of women. Without this constituency, it’s unlikely Bachelet would have pursued nearly as many pro-women measures.

5) What factors determine if these bills succeed?

Here’s where things get even trickier. Networks and constituencies help explain why some presidents prioritize certain issues, but they don’t explain successful outcomes. In Chile, as elsewhere, public opinion, congressional support and institutional resources all factor into the success of pro-women bills.

In her first term, Bachelet’s legislative victories included an improved domestic violence law, pension reform that reduced gender inequalities, expanded child care for low-income mothers and universal access to emergency contraception. She avoided the issue of abortion, however, sensing it would provoke too much opposition from congress.

Chile’s democracy gives the president enormous powers, and the public strongly supported the first three bills. There was little congressional opposition. But conservative lawmakers in the governing coalition and opposition stirred up more controversy over reproductive rights. In an attempt to bypass congress, Bachelet at first issued executive decrees to try to mandate free delivery of emergency contraception in public clinics.

Conservative legislators won an appeal to the Constitutional Court, ultimately compelling Bachelet to switch to a legislative route. Mass public demonstrations against the court’s ruling emboldened the president to aggressively exploit executive prerogatives to fast-track the bill, leading to its approval in 2010.

Bachelet faced a different political context in her second term: Although her own electoral win was overwhelming, the political parties in her governing coalition were less popular than ever. Public opinion on legalizing abortion in extreme cases was on the president’s side, though, with 70 percent of Chileans supporting her bill. Chile’s first presidenta thus successfully leveraged her personal popularity and the public’s backing to tackle a historically controversial issue like abortion.

In short, Bachelet’s appeal to public opinion coupled with an aggressive use of presidential power ultimately overcame congressional and judicial resistance to abortion reform. Women’s and feminist groups in Chile celebrated the breakthrough legislation, which will likely prove to be Bachelet’s greatest pro-women triumph of her second administration.

What’s the takeaway?

More and more women are becoming presidents and prime ministers around the world, but very few of them prioritize pro-women change, especially legislative issues that are historically hot-button ones, such as reproductive rights. Bachelet is more the exception than the rule, but her administrations can teach us a lot about the complicated relationship between a president’s gender and pro-women policymaking.

Catherine Reyes-Housholder is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion (Chile). She researches the presidency and gender, with a regional focus on Latin America. She won the 2017 American Political Science Association award for best dissertation from the Women and Politics section.
Susan Franceschet is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary in Canada and the author of Women and Politics in Chile. Her research focuses on women’s political representation, gender policy and women in executive office.

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